Whey protein helps protect against muscle-wasting and weight gain, while lowering certain cardiovascular risk factors. It also improves the body’s production of glutathione.
Whey protein is the protein contained in whey, the watery portion of milk that separates from the curds when making cheese. For years, whey protein has been taken by athletes seeking to increase muscle mass and performance. Evolving research shows that whey does much more. Whey helps protect against muscle-wasting and weight gain, while lowering certain cardiovascular risk factors.1-11
Glutathione levels drop with age, and this could play a role in neurodegeneration, reduced immunity, and other age-related conditions.16-20
Whey protein enhances glutathione production.12,13
The ability of whey to increase glutathione levels comes from its unique combinations of small peptides.
Whey protein is increasingly seen as a superfood for healthy longevity.
Dangers of Low Protein
About 45% of older people in the U.S., and more than 84% in residential care facilities, are not adequately nourished.21,22 This results from reduced appetite and food intake, impaired nutrient absorption, and other age-related changes.22-24
Insufficient intake of quality protein can lead to loss of muscle mass,25 especially in older individuals. After age 70, muscle mass decreases by about 15% per decade.
However, this process begins as early as age 40, with an estimated 8% loss of muscle mass per decade.24
Approximately 5%-13% of people aged 60 or over experience age-related muscle-wasting so severe, it increases the risk of falls and disability.26-28
Inadequate protein consumption is associated with increased risk of age-related conditions like loss of bone strength and poor immunity.29
In fact, low protein intake is associated with frailty,30 when the body is so weak it becomes unable to cope with stress or injury. Frailty is a strong predictor of mortality in aging people.21,31
Whey is a potential solution.
Whey Inhibits Muscle-Wasting
Made from the liquid part of milk that separates during cheese production, whey is a high-quality protein source for aging people.
It is also a great source of branched-chain amino acids, essential nutrients that reduce muscle breakdown and stimulate the creation of new protein in muscle.32
The most metabolically active branched-chain amino acid in whey is leucine. It activates signals in muscle that boost the body’s anabolic (growth-promoting) drive, spurring muscle synthesis.2,33-36
In one study, hospitalized, frail, elderly men and women were given whey daily during their hospital stay. Compared to patients who didn’t take whey, those who did had significant improvements in grip strength and knee extensor force, and improved rehabilitation outcomes.6
Boosting Muscle Mass
Whey doesn’t just help prevent muscle loss. Two studies show that it also significantly increases lean muscle mass, perhaps especially when combined with exercise.
In a randomized, controlled trial, researchers divided 81 healthy, older women, aged 65-80, into three groups. Over 24 weeks, one group exercised twice weekly, another took whey protein but didn’t exercise, and the third took the same amount of whey protein after exercising.4
The increase in muscle mass was significantly higher for the whey + exercise group than the other two groups. There was also a significant increase in grip strength and gait speed.4
Researchers also conducted a study to assess whey’s effects on muscle loss following periods of inactivity.
In a controlled trial, men and women in their late 60s consumed a diet in which 45% of their protein came from either whey or animal peptides. After two weeks of habitual activity, participants spent two weeks being inactive, then returned to normal activity for one more week (recovery).1
During the inactive periods, lean leg mass was reduced in both groups. During the recovery week, lean leg mass increased only in the whey protein group.1
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW The Benefits of Whey
Whey protein has long helped athletes build muscle mass, but it does much more.
Staying active and healthy with aging requires strong, healthy muscles. Unfortunately, aging adults are increasingly susceptible to losing muscle mass as they grow older.
Whey is documented to help prevent the loss of muscle mass, inhibit weight gain, and reduce multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Whey protein helps enhance the muscle-building effects of exercise while boosting glutathione levels.
Preventing Weight Gain
Our metabolism naturally slows as we age, causing many to gain weight.
Whey has been shown to help prevent weight gain. Scientists have even considered it as a potential application for the treatment of obesity.37
In a host of studies, researchers discovered that the proteins, amino acids, and minerals in whey boost satiety (the feeling of fullness), benefit glucose homeostasis (the regulation of blood sugar levels), and optimize lean body mass.38-42
Scientists conducted one recent study on 100 men aged 70 or older with sarcopenic obesity, characterized by low lean mass and high fat mass.10
They divided the subjects into three groups. One received no treatment, another received whey protein only, and the third received whey protein and underwent whole-body electrical muscle stimulation (which “exercises” the muscles). In addition, all subjects received 800 IU/day of vitamin D.10
Total body fat, trunk body fat, and waist circumference were significantly reduced in both intervention groups (whey protein alone or combined with electrical muscle stimulation) after 16 weeks, but not in the untreated group.10
Another analysis of randomized, controlled trials on overweight and obese people concluded that there was a significant decrease in body weight and total fat mass in those who took whey protein.11
Fighting Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Hypertension is one of the main factors contributing to cardiovascular disease.43 Research shows that whey-based peptides may help reduce this risk factor.44,45 (Peptides are chains of amino acids that are smaller than proteins.) And food-derived peptides like the kind found in whey are far safer than anti-hypertension drugs.
In a study, researchers asked 27 adults with mild hypertension (high blood pressure) to eat a high-fat breakfast and lunch along with 28 grams of whey protein. This was later repeated with 28 grams of calcium caseinate, a protein derived from casein (non-whey protein) in milk, and 27 grams of the carbohydrate maltodextrin.5
Whey was found to reduce systolic blood pressure (the pressure on vessels when the heart contracts), by an average of 15.2 mmHg compared to calcium caseinate, and 23.4 mmHg compared to maltodextrin, for up to five hours after ingestion.
Whey also reduced arterial stiffness compared to maltodextrin. All these actions show whey’s potential to improve cardiovascular risk factors.5
Scientists examining previous trials on overweight and obese patients also found that whey protein reduced body weight and significantly lowered blood pressure, glucose levels, and cholesterol, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.11
WHAT TYPE OF WHEY IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
Whey protein is commonly available in three forms:
Whey protein concentrate – WPC contains low levels of fat and low levels of carbohydrates. The percentage of protein in WPC depends on how concentrated it is. Lower end concentrates tend to have 30 percent protein and higher end up to 90 percent.
Whey protein isolate – WPIs are further processed to remove all the fat and lactose. WPI is usually at least 90 percent protein.
Whey protein hydrolysate – WPH is considered to be the “predigested” form of whey protein as it has already undergone partial hydrolysis – a process necessary for the body to absorb protein. WPH doesn’t require as much digestion as the other two forms of whey protein.
Risks of whey protein consumption
Whey protein is LIKELY SAFE for most children and adults when taken appropriately. High doses can cause some side effects such as increased bowel movements, nausea, thirst, bloating, cramps, reduced appetite, tiredness (fatigue), and headache.
1. It may be high in added sugars and calories. Some protein powders have little added sugar, and others have a lot (as much as 23 grams per scoop). Some protein powders wind up turning a glass of milk into a drink with more than 1,200 calories. The risk: weight gain and an unhealthy spike in blood sugar. The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 24 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams for men.
2. The Clean Label Project released a report about toxins in protein powders. Researchers screened 134 products for 130 types of toxins and found that many protein powders contained heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury), bisphenol-A (BPA, which is used to make plastic), pesticides, or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions. Some toxins were present in significant quantities.
Not all of the protein powders that were tested contained elevated levels of toxins. You can see the results at the Clean Label Project's website (www.cleanlabelproject.org).